Alicia Keys – KEYS

RCA Records

Release Date: December 10th 2021

Reviewed by: Joshua Andre

Alicia Keys– KEYS (Amazon mp3/iTunes)

Track Listing:

  1. Plentiful (Originals) [feat. Pusha T]
  2. Skydive (Originals)
  3. Best Of Me (Originals)
  4. Dead End Road (Originals)
  5. Is It Insane (Originals)
  6. Billions (Originals)
  7. Love When You Call My Name (Originals)
  8. Only You (Originals)
  9. Daffodils (Originals)
  10. Old Memories (Originals)
  11. Nat King Cole (Originals)
  12. Paper Flowers (Originals) [feat. Brandi Carlile]
  13. Like Water (Originals)
  14. KEYS
  15. Only You (Unlocked)
  16. Skydive (Unlocked)
  17. Best Of Me (Unlocked)
  18. LALA (Unlocked) [feat. Swae Lee]
  19. Nat King Cole (Unlocked) [feat. Lil Wayne]
  20. Is It Insane (Unlocked)
  21. Come For Me (Unlocked) [feat. Khalid & Lucky Daye]
  22. Old Memories (Unlocked)
  23. Dead End Road (Unlocked)
  24. Love When You Call My Name (Unlocked)
  25. Daffodils (Unlocked)
  26. Billions (Unlocked)

One of the most inspiring, comforting, honest, vulnerable, thought-provoking, and impacting albums I’ve heard recently, is R&B artist Alicia Keys’ album ALICIA. I didn’t review the album (Jon did!), but songs like “Underdog”, “Love Looks Better” and “Good Job” in particular, impressed me greatly, and showed us all how brilliant, emotive and powerful Alicia is as an artist. Jon wrote about Alicia in his blog post about influential artists, and as Jon spoke about hit songs at length, such as “No One”, “If I Ain’t Got You”, “Fallin”, “A Woman’s Worth”, “Girl on Fire”, “Superwoman”, “Brand New Me”, “Empire State of Mind Part II”, “In Common” and “Blended Family” to name a few; Jon also delved deep into Alicia’s vulnerability and her willingness to speak about issues maybe swept under the rug in the majority of mainstream music. And as I have indirectly listened to a lot of music Jon has in preparation for his blogs, I can safely and definitely concur that Alicia’s music is one of a kind, and I also wholeheartedly agree with everything that Jon has outlined in his blog, that ‘…Alicia’s music slightly has the edge- creating music that challenges the status quo about a lot of issues that may have been untouched, swept under the rug and not discussed for years, had it not been for these melodies. Alicia’s songs have a certain raw and honest feel to them- there is a certain aspect of drive and passion that I’ve observed in Alicia’s vocals and her mannerisms in a lot of her online interviews, that I’ve haven’t seen as much of in the mainstream music industry, even up to this point, which is very unfortunate indeed. Alicia’s music, reach and impact stretches far and wide…[and] the brand new album from Alicia is finally here, presenting to us 15 tracks of hope, encouragement, honesty, emotion and poignancy, all wrapped into this name of the album- ‘Alicia’- meaning that this set of songs most likely embodies what she has experienced in life thus far, and these songs fully encompasses where she is at the moment in the stage of life she is in…’.

I may not have been well versed in the vulnerable, authentic, honest and powerful music that Alicia Keys has released all throughout her career. One could say that I’m somewhat of a casual fan of Alicia, bordering on more than casual. But when Alicia unveiled KEYS, the all-original double disc album just under a month ago (which is obviously the companion album to 2020’s ALICIA); I knew I had to listen to this project and voice my thoughts on it. Not just to further my musical education, but to remind myself how God can show up and move and inspire us through one of the most relevant and hopeful and much needed artists of today. Alicia is deeply influential and popular in today’s society, and though a great extent of her discography, inclusive of this current album KEYS, isn’t labelled as Christian (in fact, I don’t really know of Alicia’s personal religious beliefs, period!); the fact of the matter still remains, that God has used Alicia’s music way beyond what even she could’ve comprehended, and far beyond what any of us could’ve comprehended also. And far beyond that; God has been using Alicia’s music to place to the forefront issues that need to be discussed that probably wouldn’t normally be spoken about. Yes, it’s true that Christian music and CCM and worship music will always have a place in my heart, because it speaks about Jesus and our hope and security in Him; but heartfelt and meaningful music like Alicia’s is not that far behind in terms of my enjoyment and enrichment for my soul.

There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle. This piece, “Keys,” just came more organically. I had the “Untold Stories” series with YouTube which opened the door to people seeing their way into my growth, my thought process, where I am. We talked about things that I haven’t before. Now I am willing and able — I have the head and the fearlessness to be in that space — and we could share and tease pieces on this new music that was coming. That was a cool way to engage people in what the music would sound like: In pieces. That was at the end of August into the top of September… The way things creatively flow, now, it is more about organic energy. More natural. In years past, you’re right. Before, it took three months for the first single, then the next single, then you were gonna tour and promo it all over the world … and finally come back to this big moment to release the record. Now, it is a shorter runway, a different tempo. 

I always knew that the “Keys” record — we had the title five years ago — was going to follow “Alicia.” Actually, at one point, “Alicia” and “Keys” were going to be the double album, and not what it turned out to be. I knew that “Keys” would be a more singer-songwriter, focused-on-piano album. Very intimate. Like, I knew this would be people’s favorite record. People always want me to be at the piano, in my element. But I didn’t know exactly how the rest of the music would reveal itself, that “Keys” would be this double album, and that it would have so many different entry points, which I tremendously love. So there are parts of “Keys” that are totally unknown, and portions that I had a genuine sense about, but didn’t know exactly how it would arrive.

“Keys” is a homecoming. I knew that it was bringing me back to a place that was familiar for me. One thing I am observing about the world, my journey, our journey together, is that there is a place and moment where you start out, and then after that, everything is so new and unexpected. You break out from who you’ve been and keep growing. You do that, and then you realize that you maybe left behind the original you a little bit. You didn’t mean to leave her behind. You didn’t have any problems with the original you. You’ve just been searching for more of you. Gearing up for “Keys,” and thinking about my relationship to the piano… it felt like, man, I’m coming back.  I’m back in my bag. It’s a beautiful circle.

It [KEYS] is an invitation for all of us to show up to ourselves and not hold back any part of ourselves. I think a lot of us oftentimes feel like we have to dim it down and small it down. No, I refuse it anymore. I invite us all to refuse it because there’s a power and a special energy that we all have. I was really open to that during the creative process too. I think what I felt the most was the magic of creativity and the allowance of that magic.

First and foremost, KEYS is a double album. There are 14 tracks on disc one, and 12 on disc two, and as Alicia has outlined above, the second disc is a more experimental side and ‘out-there’ collection of some versions of songs from disc one. It’s another way of seeing these songs breathe and live and permeate and reveal intricate details about ourselves… and that’s the beauty of having 2 versions of the same song on the album. When listening to an ‘original’ song and an ‘unlocked’ song from KEYS, there’s a whole different message and atmosphere and feel about it… and that experience alone is worth us all diving deep and listening to these melodies at least once. Alicia, to me, has totally outdid herself here, and I personally feel the Originals part of this album flows better than the Unlocked part. The second disc is still awesome… but I just prefer the first disc more! You might think differently to me, and that’s the beauty of music is that it speaks to you one way and may speak to me another way.

Opening the track list to the Originals portion of the album is the vibrant “Plentiful”. Featuring Pusha T on guest vocals, this melody is one of the rare tracks that doesn’t have an ‘unlocked’ version. Co-written with Kanye ‘Ye’ West, “Plentiful” is a verseless, chorusless melody that musically and thematically jumps out of the gate; and as an opener, speaks a lot about where Alicia is in her life at the moment. A song that speaks about praising God because ‘…my God is plentiful, He surrounds me every day, I’m like a miracle, feel the water beneath me, I used to live hidden in a disguise, Faith is the King that has opened my eyes…’, the song can also be interpreted as new age-y. however regardless of its intention, I love the praiseworthy and overt aspect about it; and no doubt Christians can claim a song like this for their own. As a believer, I’m excited for songs like this, because it provides an avenue for discussion and healthy dialogue; and as such, Alicia needs to be congratulated. “Skydive”, a piano prominent ballad, is next, and eloquently speaks about trusting and having faith in someone close to us, so as to be vulnerable and honest and open in this world; with Alicia once again wearing her heart on her sleeve, and outlining to us all our emotions and feelings about being open and vulnerable with people she knows and with people she doesn’t. again, this melody is a standout, and is Alicia at her songwriting and vocal best.

The rest of the Originals portion of the album, as well as the Unlocked part, features Alicia showcasing a side of herself lyrically, thematically and musically like she never has before. “Best Of Me” is a smooth, jazzy, love song directed to her husband, with Alicia vibrantly and eloquently relaying that he brings out the best of her and that he gets the best of her; while “Dead End Road”, one of my favourites from KEYS, dives deep into raw emotion and vulnerability, with Alicia singing desperately about someone at the end of their rope. Thematically and lyrically, “Dead End Road” speaks about having a fracture in a relationship, but still trying and doing your hardest on your end to make the friendship or relationship work. It’s a song about a hard slog without an inkling of which way the relationship is going to go, but Alicia deserves full points for outlining the notion that we need to give something our all and more than our 100% efforts, before we declare that it has run its course. It’s a song that could be read as pessimistic, but the heightened emotion here makes this track have immense relay value. “Is It Insane?”, written in 2003 and originally released on Alicia’s website in 2013, is a heartfelt and powerful piano ballad, and eloquently and earnestly asks the question of whether it is insane or in fact logical to question a person’s hold over someone else in the romantic sense, and whether it is crazy to doubt someone’s seemingly pure intentions; while “Billions” dives deep into the notion that we are all ‘one in a billion’ in terms of our talents, characteristics and every other quality under the sun, and thus two unique people in a relationship is something that is very surreal, with Alicia vibrantly and passionately singing out that there’s ‘…no limit to the things that you do, everybody in the world knows it’s true…’.

“Love When You Call My Name”, an emotional, raw piano ballad, speaks about the love between two people that is real and true and genuine, and subtly alludes to physical intimacy (although the song can also be about something more innocent as well!), with Alicia outlining that she loves it when her husband calls her name. “Only You” thematically, lyrically, and musically follows on from “Love When You Call My Name”, and is its spiritual sequel, as Alicia draws upon themes sung in “If I Ain’t Got You” and expands upon them, letting her husband know that she is devoted to him 100%. And while “Daffodils” is another piano prominent song like its predecessors, the powerful piano led ballad seems to be a cut above the rest of these exemplary melodies, and is Alicia at another level- the track speaks about the notions of daffodils and flowers growing and blooming during the springtime, and is a personal favourite of mine. And as Alicia powerfully and passionately sings about the spring occurring after the winter, and the realisation that something good can occur out of something bad; we are presented with the realisation that God often uses adversity, hardship and heartache to bring forth beauty from ashes, that ‘…sun always brings the light, time always brings a change, we planted seeds inside, now we’re dancing in the rain…’.

“Old Memories”, one of the most confronting yet comforting songs on the album, ardently and fervently dives deep into the concept of time, and how we as people long to get ‘rid of’ the old and move onto the new. Yet in this melody, Alicia vibrantly lets us know that sometimes old things are better in a way, as it connects us to the good times in our past, and lets us know that there’s a story in our past that makes up a part of us that we should be proud of. Sometimes we all are ashamed or embarrassed of the parts of our story that we think are unimportant and messy and out of place. But this melody inspires us and encourages us to dig deep into our soul for the old memories. For it is in those places where we can reminisce and think about things that are sentimental, but also things that have made us grow as people. “Old Memories”, probably one of the most important songs from KEYS, and maybe Alicia’s whole career, is THE song that I’d encourage you to listen to first from the album… so what are you waiting for?

“Nat King Cole”, another album highlight, and co-written with Natalie Hemby and “Lean On Me” writer Bill Withers, confidently speaks about standing out and putting your best foot forward in everything you do (like Nat King Cole in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s), with Alicia imploring us all to not sell ourselves short, and instead reach for the stars and reach for our dreams; while the emphatic “Paper Flowers” features Brandi Carlile on guest vocals and fervently outlines the notion of living for the moment and actually making a difference in this world. With the lyrics speaking out against the motion of just existing and meandering along (like paper flowers, which won’t die, but can’t experience the fullness of being a real live plant!), we are encouraged in this song to be the difference we want to see in this world; as Alicia and Brandi passionately plead with us to only focus on the moment- if we’re too focused on the past we’ll be stuck like cement, and if we’re too hopeful for the future we won’t be present in the present. “Like Water”, the final track on the Originals portion of the album, speaks about Alicia’s connection to her family- to her husband and to her kids- as she passionately reiterates that they are all like water to each other; and it’s a track that sums up the heart of the album. A melody that speaks about the importance of family and having deep roots in your identity, Alicia brings home the concept of a family unit being grounded in each other. It’s a theme that Casting Crowns has deepened with their 2014 album Thrive (having your roots deep in Jesus), but for a mainstream song that can appeal to anybody and everybody, “Like Water” inspires us to have that soul connection with our friends and family and to be vulnerable with the people that you are closest to. The piano only instrumental “KEYS”, the bridge between both versions, is next, and reminds us how brilliant Alicia is as a piano player, and also serves as the moment ‘in-between’ versions of albums.

KEYS is what I’m calling a double-album, for sure. And so the first half of the album is called the Originals. And these original songs are the first songs that I created for the project. And the Originals are all about exactly what we talked about. The singer-songwriter, the piano at the forefront, the pen, the crafting, the music, the bluesy, the hard New York original AK that really had and has all that energy that I think people really want from me.

It has that zone, but that’s just because it’s a homecoming and I actually finally realized that I’ve always been who I am supposed to be. And I’m great exactly where I started. And so that’s the energy of the Originals. Then I decided because I’m a New Yorker and you know New Yorkers love to sample some s***, I decided that I wanted to sample the Originals album and create a whole other body of work called Unlocked. So when you get KEYS, you’re going to get these two bodies that actually live completely separately, but you can reference how there’s an “Old Memories” on the Originals, there’s an “Old Memories” on Unlocked. There’s a “Dead End Road” on the Originals, there’s a “Dead End Road” on the Unlocked. There’s a “Is It Insane,” which is another record that’s like ay-ay-ay. And there’s a “Is It Insane” on Unlocked.

So you are going to be able to experience these two sides of who I am as an artist. Because I feel like I have an Unlocked side of me and I think that’s a little bit maybe of what y’all are starting to get to know me about. And I have the Original side of me. And so you definitely are going to hear them both musically. I was really excited to create that because I am so multidimensional, we all are. And I don’t even feel comfortable just living in one space, that it will never fully define exactly who I am. It’s going to be a large part of it, but it’s never going fully create the full spectrum.

For me, I’ve loved Alicia’s Originals’ versions of KEYS however The Unlocked renditions are inspiring, powerful cool, experimental and encouraging also. It’s a different way to hear these already impressive melodies. And I guess if you’re sick of hearing 14 piano ballads (which in essence, that is what the Originals portion of KEYS is!), then the Unlocked portion will appeal to you. For me though, as I’m much more rounded and can listen to almost any type of music, the Originals versions resonated with me more. But the Unlocked part is fun and different, and also still Alicia at the very core. For me, I instantly gravitated to “LALA” and “Come For Me” because they were brand new songs, while “Nat King Cole” has an extra verse with Lil Wayne. “LALA”, with Swae Lee, is musically all over the place, and is unlike anything Alicia has done. As a song, it’s not my favourite, simply because I don’t really know what’s going on, and multiple listens just have me more confused, but the melody is in fact close to Alicia’s heart, and she did in fact enjoy recording with Swae Lee: Swae is such a bright energy. He’s the real deal. He’s so authentic and for real. You know how you meet a lot of people and it’s different vibes, but his vibe is so genuine. His energy and how we just wrote the song. It just felt so, it’s just like it’s tumbling from, I don’t know where it came from. …And so, but what I love about it is it’s so unexpected because you might see Swae featured on my record and you might expect something, or you might not expect something. I’m not sure what people expect, but what I love about it is I personally feel like you never heard Swae like this before. “Come For Me”, with Khalid and Lucky Daye, is as explicit a song as they come without being explicit, with the song being about sex (although it can be read as devotion and love in its pure form as well!); however “Nat King Cole” with Lil Wayne enhances this rendition to the nth degree! With the rest of the melodies being hardly altered, or rather overtly with the presence of electronic effects, Alicia shows us a blast on the Unlocked portion of KEYS and tightens up an already impressive track list.

In my experience, you always have to work for it. That’s just period. If anybody’s delusional enough to think that you just going to sit down and just everything, all the time, is just the most easiest, flowingest thing, and you’re just have happen to be hit with all this inspiration, and then it’s just so simple and easy — that’s bulls***. That’s nobody ever. Now that doesn’t mean that there are not moments where you are hit by inspiration and it comes fast and you’re like, “Ooh, this is crazy.” That’s happened to me before. I’ve been in that room with myself and I’ve been like, “Oh my God. That was like a lightning bolt of divine inspiration.” True. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it doesn’t happen a lot.

Not with like something where it’s amazing. You know what I mean? It happens with a bunch of bulls*** that you kind of say, “Okay, it was a cute little thing that I just have fun with and it was cool.” But those ones, those are very, very, very special. So I personally feel like you always have to work. You have to want it. You have to craft it. You have to think about it. You have to imagine it. You have to dream it. You have to walk away from it. You have to come back to it. You got to ask yourself, “Is that good?” You got to say, “You know what? That’s what the moment was for me. I don’t care what anybody else thinks.” You have to be in it. You got to be a part of it.

I think that’s my experience. That’s how I feel. So that idea of working for something is not scary to me. I know I’m going to have to work for it. Every time I write a song, I don’t know how I wrote a song. I’m grateful for the songs I’ve written. And every time I go in and write a song, I’m like, “How do I write a song? Am I going write a song? I don’t even know what to do. How do I write the song?” I think it’s almost a part of how it has to be. So yeah, so it definitely took some work, but I think what happened to me for KEYS, that I really did love, is I was very clear that I really wanted this to be about the keys.

I’ve been waiting for KEYS for about five years. I always had the title in my head and I always knew Alicia would come first and KEYS would be second. So I’ve been waiting for this moment. It’s kind of been in my energy. And so since I knew I wanted it to be so focused around a piano and really just like, really into that piano zone, I was very clear about how I wanted to start, which helps. Because I think sometimes when you kind of just go in and you have fun, which is awesome, you find yourself going a thousand places and you’re like, wait, where do I belong? But this one, I really, really knew what I wanted to do. So I just sat down at the piano and I did kind of release a lot of judgment on this record.

I am a crafter of songs. I really believe in the art of songwriting. I like to make words make sense. And I like choruses that like take you to a place that they’re very, they’re easy, they’re singable, but they also are emotional. Like, I pay attention to the style of writing and how I want that song to kind of unfold for me and the person that’s going to listen to it.

This time I did feel like I let go of a lot of that judgment. I just allowed myself to write what I felt, how I felt, where I felt it. Explore these chords and play and find it. And this is what it made me feel. And this is what I wrote. And I didn’t get so crazy about like some of the ways I have before, in regards to the crafting. I definitely crafted the song, but I looked at it from a different viewpoint. I just allowed it to be free. And I think that’s the reason why it feels so like cohesive and almost like… it just feels like it has a connected energy, because it really all lived in this moment, in this place, with this mentality, and during this time.

There’s not much I need to say about Alicia Keys’ double album KEYS. Ambitious, powerful, encouraging, inspiring, thought-provoking, introspective, reflective, and even at times worshipful, Alicia has recorded probably the album of her career. Save for a couple of tracks like “LALA” and “Come For Me”, the rest of these songs have immense replay value. And now I’ll end the album here, because you all need to get onto this… stat! First off, read Jon’s review of Alicia and then his blog about her. And now listen to KEYS with open ears and open hearts. You’ll be amazed by what you hear. No doubt God is working. We just need to be ready and available to listen! Well done Alicia, I can’t wait to hear what is next for you in 2022! Maybe a Christmas album?

5 songs to listen to: Dead End Road (Original), Daffodils (Original), Old Memories (Original), Paper Flowers, Nat King Cole (Unlocked)

Score: 4.5/5

RIYL: John Legend, Lecrae, Mariah Carey, Kirk Franklin, Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez

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